A soul-searching conversation on self-compassion over afternoon tea

Dr Claudia Wong says by walking mindfully, she is aware of every step she takes on the grass. She feels softness of the grass and the morning breeze caressing her face.

Dr Claudia Wong Ming-yu
Assistant Professor
Department of Health and Physical Education

Recently, I had an afternoon tea at a Japanese-style café with a good friend. We used to be well acquainted, but for no specific reason we hadn’t reached out for a few years. When I updated her about the mindful self-compassion course I led at the University in recent months, she was incredibly interested in knowing what I taught in the course and why an academic like me needed to teach “soul-searching” classes to students. At first, I only intended to tell her about self-compassion, but in the end, I told her a long story about myself and my passionate journey of self-understanding and self-discoveries, or in the very word she used— “soul-searching”.

The story began when I was still a member of Hong Kong’s long-distance swimming team a number of years ago. I always think that swimming is a lonely sport. As a long-distance swimmer, I swam in nature’s pool for long periods of time. When I swim in the sea or lake, I relish in the feeling of being surrounded by water. During my swimming journey, I developed a habit of thinking to and of myself. I observed how my physical strength and mental states have changed over the course of swimming sessions. During the lonely journey, I found that having something to do, even as simple as being aware of my feeling at that time, would definitely make my time in water much more fulfilling.


Two types of athletes – gamers and chokers

As an inborn gamer, Dr Wong stays focused and performs better in competitions than in training.

Swimming also led me to understand that besides capability and skills, personality also affects athletic performance. In sports science, there are two types of athletes: gamers and chokers. I am an inborn gamer. I can stay focused during the competition and ignore all other athletes competing with me in the game. Not only I was not debilitated by the fear of losing, the possibility of winning thrilled me. Oftentimes, I performed better in competitions than during practices.

The other type of athletes are called chokers. Chokers follow strict instructions from coaches and can endure long training routines. But when they participate in competitions, they become overwhelmed by their anxiety of not meeting expectations and the ultimate fear of failure. As fear dominates and confidence wanes, they often fail to perform at a level in which what they normally could and lose the competition.

“Having these two ideas in my mind – my self-reflexive disposition and the observation that there are psychological factors behind athletic performance, I chose to study psychology when I pursued my postgraduate studies in Scotland,” I told my friend. The two master’s programme I took exposed me to different areas of psychology, giving me a very solid foundation in the discipline. And above all, I came across the idea of self-compassion during my psychology studies in Scotland, which turned out to be the subject that I found real passion in. When I came back to Hong Kong to study for a PhD programme, I decided to work on a research project about self-compassion.


The café only had a few customers that afternoon. Indulging in its quietness and soothing music, my friend and I took a bite of the fluffy lemon cake and enjoyed a cup of Japanese tea before continuing our conversation.


My friend is the kind of person who is keen on understanding the inner psyche of human beings and how to live a better life. The word self-compassion somehow caught her attention. “In textbook definition, self-compassion is made up of three parts: mindfulness, self-kindness, and common humanity,” I continued to explain to her. Her eyes sparkled as she listened to my elaboration. Her intellectual curiosity was palpable.

The café only had a few customers that afternoon. Indulging in its quietness and soothing music, my friend and I took a bite of the fluffy lemon cake and enjoyed a cup of Japanese tea before continuing our conversation. After closing my eyes for a short rest, I gave her a brief explanation about what mindfulness, self-kindness, and common humanity are in the framework of self-compassion.


Living in the present moment

Doing Pilates and yoga mindfully can help us to gain a deeper insight into our minds.

Mindfulness practices teach us to live in the very present moment. The practices which usually involve long or short meditation help us to be aware of our present thoughts and feelings, including thoughts and feelings of being betrayed, hurt, defeated, treated unfairly, and so forth, without making judgments or reaction. Once we are aware of the existence of such thoughts and feelings, we need to detach ourselves from them, preventing ourselves from being overwhelmed by these negativities. We need to understand that they are ephemeral. We try not to allow those thoughts disturb our inner peacefulness. As Professor Mark Williams, one of the founders of Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), said through mindfulness practices, we can train ourselves to notice when our thoughts are taking over and realise that thoughts are simply “mental events” that do not have to control us.

To be self-kind is to treat ourselves as we would our good friends. That is to treat ourselves with a gentle and understanding attitude when we experience hardship, disappointment, setbacks, and failures. In other words, we deal with our depressing emotions with acceptances, leniency, kindness and warmth instead of being judgmental and self-critical. In the mindful self-compassion classes I taught, I asked participants to imagine there was a compassionate friend standing beside them. “This friend would forgive, accept, and comfort you. This friend will encourage you to make changes, and support you to pursue a better and more mentally fulfilling life. This friend is you.” I usually encouraged my class like that.


People form bonds through sufferings

We were so absorbed in our conversation that we didn’t realise that the café had become half-full of new customers.


The third element of self-compassion is common humanity. People who have severe physical or mental disabilities, suffer from chronic incurable illness, experience a major tragedy like loss of close family members or a painful divorce tend to think that they are the only ones in the world who have gone through those sufferings. That is far from the truth. Illness, failures, loss, sorrows, and imperfections are shared among humankind. These painful experiences are our shared humanity. Acknowledging that there is a common humanity among all of us helps us to understand that the feelings of inadequacy and disappointment are universal. “When we suffer, we are not alone. Suffering is part of human existence. What’s more, it is suffering that connects us together. We should take it as an integral part of our lives,” I told my friend as we took another sip of tea.

We were so absorbed in our conversation that we didn’t realise that the café had become half-full of new customers. As my friend was curious to know more about the topic, we decided to stay for a longer while and ordered another Caesar salad rich in parmesan cheese and mayonnaise. “We treat ourselves well with good food and environment. This is a practice of self-kindness,” my friend said with a sense of humour.

My friend and I have known each other since I was an elite long-distance swimmer. During that time, I still competed in different local and international competitions. With such memories, she tends to associate me with typical athletic qualities like body agility, physical strength, and competitive mentality, but rarely know that I have another side that embraces stillness, peacefulness, gentleness, compassion, and acceptance. The conversation challenged her understanding of me and made her even more eager to know how I transformed from a swimmer into a self-compassion teacher.


Long-distance swimming and self-understanding

Marathon swimming is to swim 10 km or further. During the long solo journey, Dr Wong pays close attention to her body and mind. In the photo, Dr Wong replenishes water from a supply boat during an open-water marathon competition.

“Remember I told you that swimming is a lonely sport. When I swim for long hours in the open sea, the solitary aquatic journey becomes a long process of self-contemplation. As I submerge myself in water, the flow of water around my body eases my mind. In water, I forget all the hustles and bustles, and mundane concerns in life. I pay close attention to my body and mind, noticing every minute changes in my physical movements, mental strength, and emotional states. I talk to and try to befriend my emotions. I become clearer of my authentic self and of what I truly need. I gain new perspectives about myself and understand myself more,” I told my friend.

These soul-searching journeys helped me understand myself. I found that I have a fervent desire to nurture self-awareness and self-discovery, qualities that I believe I am born with. I believe the urge to have a deeper understanding about myself sowed a seed that prompted me to study psychology and self-compassion when the opportunity came. If swimming represents my ambition to achieve recognisable results in the external world, self-compassion connects me with the inner voices of myself, my students, and my fellow junior swimmers.

In the first semester of 2023/24, I launched an eight-lesson course on mindful self-compassion for students at this University. In the class, there were students who were dragged down by their feelings of imperfections. To help them, I taught them how to practise mindfulness, self-kindness, and common humanity. In one activity, I asked them to draw a broken bowl and then mend the bowl in their own ways. This activity was an adaptation from the Japanese tradition of repairing broken lacquerware and pottery with lacquer dusted with gold powder.


Kintsugi (金継ぎ)

Participants learn from the class that like a broken bowl could be mended, a broken self could also be healed.

The ancient Japanese practice of Kintsugi uses a blend of gold or silver powder and lacquer to mend cracked or broken lacquerware and pottery. Instead of concealing the imperfections, the use of gold emphasises the cracks in the repaired piece. Photo source: Musubi Kiln Journal


This is really an inspiring idea. You mean imperfection is part of perfection.


The Japanese tradition is called Kintsugi (金継ぎ), or “golden joinery” in English. It represents the Japanese philosophy that broken objects are not worthless. By putting the broken pieces together, we can reinvent an artistic object where all the broken pieces, cracks, and mends contribute to its newfound beauty. The repaired vessels are as valuable as the original. This symbolises the idea that flaws and brokenness can be transformed into beauty and strength, whether in the case of a broken bowl or a broken self.

“This is really an inspiring idea. You mean imperfection is part of perfection,” my friend said. I nodded in appreciation of her insightfulness. The feelings of imperfection not only exist in my students, they are literally affecting every one of us. Although I no longer swim in competitions, I still keep close contacts with my junior swimmers. Some of them are elite swimmers like me when I was younger. Quite a number of them, usually choker type athletes, told me that they face huge anxieties during competitions. Instead of asking them to increase the intensity of their training, I advise them to spend time to understand themselves more. I help them to understand the deeper reason behind their anxiety and fear, and try to enlighten them to understand that mental factors play a huge role in their performance.


Rich inner resources

Dr Wong believes self-compassion can help elite swimmers improve their performance. In the photo, Dr Wong introduces the three components of self-compassion to members of the Hong Kong Swimming Team.

Over the years, I have observed that many teenagers and young adults in Hong Kong, athletes or not, experience different degrees of self-imposed hardship. They set an expectation that is too high, a goal too unrealistic, and an ideal self too perfect. When setbacks occur, they criticise instead of taking better care of themselves. They felt guilty of their failures, overwhelmed by their frustration, and disappointed by their imperfections. Negative feelings unmoored are extremely dangerous. If left unchecked, it will become a beast that consumes all positive energy and even cause damage to the people around them.


We paid the bill and left the cosy café, then continued to engage in some small talks before we said our goodbyes.


I told my friend that leading a course on mindful self-compassion certainly gave me hands-on experience that is helpful to my teaching and academic research. But more importantly, I found more satisfaction from the course as it helped people to learn basic ideas about mindfulness, self-kindness, and common humanity. “We all have extraordinarily rich inner resources. If an athlete knows how to use these resources, they can perform better in competition. If an ordinary person knows how to apply these resources when facing stress and adversities coming from their studies, career or relationships, they can live a happier life,” I spoke to my friend.

My friend listened intently, making occasional meaningful remarks throughout the conversation. These remarks helped me organise my thoughts. As dusk light shone through the windows of the café onto our faces, I thanked her for hearing me out and for her helpful remarks. We paid the bill and left the cosy café, then continued to engage in some small talks before we said our goodbyes. I went home with the satisfaction from the tasty food and the contentment as a result of sharing my deep thoughts with a good friend. I believe my friend felt the same.

Note: With a passion for promoting healthy lifestyle behaviours, Dr Claudia Wong has dedicated her research efforts to positivity and self-psychology, including self-compassion, mindful self-care, resilience, quality of life, and health literacy. Dr Wong's commitment to advancing knowledge in her field is evident in her endeavour to receive specialised training in Mindful Self-Compassion with Teens Teacher. The training equipped her with the skills to enhance the well-being of adolescents, and to foster their emotional resilience and self-compassion during their critical stage of development. Her work contributes to the development of evidence-based interventions and strategies to improve mental health outcomes, empower individuals, and nurture a thriving society.

(Dr Claudia Wong collaborated with Tam Siu-man on this piece.)